Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Killing Factory – Unchecked, Unbridled

A little over a year ago I read a well-researched article about the evolution of the psychological training of US troops to more efficiently kill perceived enemies.

Apparently, during WWII, US Army historian S.L.A. Marshall made a diligent study of combat behavior amongst his fellow troops. His published conclusion was that a shocking 75% of American soldiers failed to immediately return fire when fired upon. His report and methodology were of course the subject of much controversy. But the question had been raised. What could America do to better prepare its' defense forces for the brutal reality of the actions required by a soldier?

Jeff Tietz, the author of the article, provides some background. He explains that:

Before World War II, basic training sought to produce disciplined men, not killers. The closest you got to battle was shooting at bull’s-eye targets and bayoneting hay bales. Less than a year after Men Against Fire [the published report by Army historian Marshall], the Army began distributing a “Revised Program of Instruction” to its officers and drill sergeants. Marshall considered it essential to “free the rifleman’s mind with respect to the nature of targets”—to keep soldiers from thinking human before shooting.

On his recommendation, the Army began training recruits in “massing fire”—shooting at the types of inanimate cover they would see in combat: tree lines, embankments, ridges. It also began downplaying its standard exhortation “Kill the enemy!” and emphasized instead a rifleman’s responsibility to deliver his comrades from danger. “Protect your buddy!” and “Protect the integrity of your unit!” became common maxims.

The value of applied psychology soon became apparent: The firing rate during the Korean War rose to nearly sixty percent. In Vietnam it was ninety percent, and in the first Gulf War it reached ninety-eight percent. In Iraq, the number of soldiers who fail to fire is thought to be statistically insignificant. American forces never lost a major engagement in Vietnam, and they have not lost one since.

The Army now spends nearly $2 billion annually on basic training. It employs thousands of people: to invent virtual-reality environments, to calculate the maximum volume of information a recruit can absorb in fourteen weeks, to determine the emotional state in which recruits will most freely shoot at the human form, to discover how much punishment their bodies can take, to build mock urban battlefields that replicate mosque spires and the sound of a muezzin’s call to prayer. The Army’s infantry schools graduate nearly 20,000 soldiers a year. No institution in history has come close to training so many people to kill so effectively in such a short time.

I have mixed feelings about this. I really do have a dedicated and passionate allegiance to our nation and its freedom. I also have great respect and admiration for being 'the absolute best'. Maximizing potential. Protecting loved ones. Fighting for Freedom. Succeeding. Winning.

But I also know you can go 'too far' with anything. The road to hell is, as they say, paved with 'good intentions'.

One of the most effective psychological techniques that our battle-trainers utilize is de-humanization. With Vietnam it was describing the enemy as 'gooks', not people. In Iraq, they're all 'rabid-terrorist-camel-jockeys' - and worse. The idea is that you want to create as much psychological separation between the enemy and your troops as possible. The less human your "enemy", the less problems you have managing your troops. Truth and reality go right out the window. The enemy is not comprised of fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, and innocent children. No, somehow, they are all nameless, faceless, entirely unconnected to the world you know, completely negligible, and most probably hell-bent on destroying your faithful batallion members, you, and everything you hold dear. This extends beyond the enemy army to the complicit neighbors, villages, families, and other sometimes unavoidable collateral damage that [presumably] should have and could have chosen not to support such inhuman evil in their midst.

I suppose this is one of the 'evils of standing armies' that our Founding Fathers warned against: the over-professionalization of warmaking, killing, and conquest. [As a side-note I was reading the Federalist Papers the other day and discovered a long argument about how any politician that wanted to could always cook up a good argument that the Union was in imminent danger from Spanish or British support of the disgruntled Indian tribes – and thus, disingenuously keep America in a constant state of needless war . . . perhaps times have not changed so very much.]

Don't get me wrong. When I decry the potential 'evils of standing armies' and our leaders 'going too far', it's not that I don't understand the need for a strong defense. It's just that I have often observed the maxim that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Also, from the Doctrine and Covenants: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

A strong national militia is indeed a dangerous power. The founders worried ceaselessly about this. It's a necessary component of a free and sovereign nation and yet that component is fraught with perilous downsides. In the Constitution they drafted (as well as in their writings) they labored diligently to provide checks and balances to these powers that seem to have been completely ignored in our current warmaking processes.

Anyways all of that, of course, brings me back to my Presidential candidate of choice and why I back him so fervently. Dr. Paul talks about Constitutional safeguards that have been neglected in our current conflicts. Ron Paul talks about the inherent humanity of each person in each sovereign nation and the "God-given" rights that we have all been granted.

Paul is not a simple pacifist nor is he soft on defense. He served in the armed forces as an Air Force surgeon and he was one of the first to support Reagan (and his talk of restoring America's defenses) out in Texas. Paul voted against the irrational conquest of Iraq, but he voted for going after al Queda who had taken responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. He still advocates going after bin Laden and questions our strange support of the military dictator (and Islamo-fascist nuclear rebel) Musharrif in Pakistan where bin Laden has - by most reports - taken up residence.

Paul is the only candidate I've heard who respects the wisdom of the Constitutional framers, who advocates limited and judicious use of our military powers, and who opposes our wholesale transformation into an angry 'pre-emptive' warmaking Empire who marches around the world and forces policing on cultures we don't care to even understand. Paul suggests that de-humanization itself is a weapon we should wield with much more caution. He suggests restraint, diplomacy, and a re-focusing of our defenses on defending our borders as opposed to Imperial conquests; he understands that our men and women in uniform should be treated with respect and well-taken care of as we choose our engagements in the world. Anything else is neither "support for the troops" nor "strengthening our defenses".

I've quoted before that First Presidency message from 1976 where President Kimball said "We are a warlike people, easily distracted . . . when threatened we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan's counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior's teaching. . ." The whole article is good for perspective and addresses many of the "False Gods We Worship", not just the militant ones, of course, but that part of his message seems particularly applicable to the political questions of today.

I believe it is time to regain perspective in the self-governance of our nation and its formidable powers. I also strongly believe Congressman Ron Paul is the most capable advocate of that cause in the running. So I look forward to voting for him February 5th. At any rate, I particularly like the perspective he has that the issues are far bigger than he is and – win or lose – they aren't going away.


Jason D said...

Good post. I to have a always felt uneasy about how the military dehumanizes the enemy, while necessary for war I think any moral person has reservations towards this. I've always found it ironic that in protecting our God given inalienable right we must alientate those rights from others.

Carissa said...

Ron Paul brought up an important point in the ABC debate about how the golden rule should apply to our foreign policy. He said:

"...try to visualize how we would react if they did that to us"

No one cared to consider this, even for a moment. They simply accused him of buying into propaganda. When the enemy is dehumanized, we are much less likely to use the golden rule in our conduct toward him. How does the gospel of Jesus Christ fit in to this and how should it influence our foreign policy?

Russel M. Nelson said:

"Wherever it is found and however it is expressed, the Golden Rule encompasses the moral code of the kingdom of God. It forbids interference by one with the rights of another. It is equally binding upon nations, associations, and individuals. With compassion and forbearance, it replaces the retaliatory reactions of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” If we were to stay on that old and unproductive path, we would be but blind and toothless." Blessed are the Peacemakers, 2002

I fear that our new foreign policy of pre-emption, presented as the only way of eradicating terrorism and bringing peace, is an unproductive path that will only lead to more war and more hatred in the world. I believe that the solution, if we cared to listen, was presented in the same talk:

"Peace can prevail only when that natural inclination to fight is superseded by self-determination to live on a loftier level."

Doug said...

Jason, thank you. Yeah, obviously I don't believe that our self-defense and foreign-policy need to be based on such ironies. I believe that if our citizenry and leadership were more focused on correct principles we wouldn't come to such morally dubious conclusions and situations.

Carissa, yeah although I wavered a bit on my support for Paul himself as I investigated the newsletter flap, I heartily support him staying in the debates all the way until the brokered convention because what you say is so true. The recent South Carolina debate just floored me. Each candidate was saying outrageous, racist, and over-generalized things and only Paul had the wisdom and the courage to stand up to such rhetoric with truth and Christian reason. Thank you for the Nelson quotes. I'll re-read that talk. I very much appreciate that.

Toadicus Rex said...

I find myself disagreeing, as usual. And I'll use a reference from the Book of Mormon - I'm pretty sure you are misreading this.

Here's the issue; we have soldiers that are unable to recognize the validity of killing for a cause, just as many people are unable to recognize this. All killing is uncomfortable, but it doesn't necessarily make it wrong. In fact, sometimes it's necessary and right.

Look at Nephi, 1 Nephi 3. He had to dehumanize Laban in order to kill him. I know you're going to argue with this, I don't care. But logic would be against you. He was presented with a command to kill. He refused at first, because he had never before taken a man's life. Then the Angel said that it is better that one man should perish than that a whole nation should dwindle in unbelief.

Let's break it down; Nephi sees Laban's humanity. The Angel says "Yep, he's human. But that's not the point. The point is that there is a greater issue at stake, and he plays for the wrong side." In essence, Laban's humanity is downplayed in exchange for a cause.

There's the real question. Is it right to kill for a cause? Just because it makes you uneasy doesn't make it wrong.

And yeah.. about the newsletter flap... I can't understand how reasonable people can get behind Paul for President. I grant he's got a great record on social and fiscal conservatism... but I don't admire his foreign policy.

Doug said...


I cannot accept any twisting of ideas that ends up in suggesting that it is always right to kill innocent people in defense of a just cause. In fact, I would propose just the opposite - that most of the time it is completely wrong to kill innocent people in support of any cause -- even a "worthy" one.

I would propose that the wanton killing of innocent people that always accompanies war should be held foremost in mind as the reason it should always be a weapon of last resort. I have argued elsewhere in comments that war is much like abortion to me. I understand why some pro-life groups picket LDS General Conference given that we are not 100% against abortion: allowing individuals a prayerful, reasoned choice in situations like rape, incest, and serious threat to the mother's health (ie is terminating an ectopic pregnancy where the baby has 0% chance to live but the mother could very well die really an immoral decision? . . . would not terminating an ectopic pregnancy early enough be immoral? [i would think so])

Consequently I truly understand why so many people are so supportive of the war. There are people spinning the causes for this war and the motivations of our supposed enemies in very convincing ways. I just find that the more I investigate it, the more I see clearly that our "differences" with Iran, Syria, Venezuela, -- even the Iraqi rebels -- simply *do not* rise up to the level of justifying something as horrific, detestable, and hard to control as war. Some Americans -- even politicians and supposedly learned pundits -- are ready to "go to war!" over such small things!

Furthermore, 'the Spirit told Nephi to disobey the law' argument is the slipperiest slope out there. I like that Elder Oaks tackled that in a thesis during his college days and concluded that according to law in Jerusalem in Nephi's time it was actually within the law for Nephi to avenge Laban's successful robberies and attempted murderings by justly taking his particular life.

Finally, I see no parallel between one specific ruthless, power-hungry, robbing, murderer and the thousands of innocent men, women, and children that get caught in the crossfire of wars they didn't start or support. Dehumanizing whole groups of people is always bad. Dehumanizing somebody like Laban, [yes, also] Saddam, or Hitler isn't something you have to work at -- they've already done it to themself.